Marvelous Marvin Hagler was a dominant, no-nonsense, hard-nosed fighter in the last golden age of boxing. He was one of the most complete fighters in boxing history. He had one of the greatest right jabs and had a granite chin. He was, in my opinion, the greatest southpaw in the history of boxing. All of these attributes also made him the second greatest Middleweight in the history of boxing.
Hagler began his career in the same town as the legendary Rocky Marciano, Brockton, Massachusetts. It was there that as an adolescent he was discovered by Pat and Tony Petronelli. The Petronelli brothers would guide Hagler for his entire career. After a successful amateur career, highlighted by winning the 1973 Middleweight National AAU title, Hagler turned pro. From the very beginning of his pro career, anyone who saw him fight knew he was going to be something special.
Despite being the most gifted young American Middleweight prospect in several years, Hagler was forced to fight in obscurity. After defeating 1972 Olympic Gold Medalist Sugar Ray Seales in Hagler’s backyard of Boston on August 30, 1974, Hagler was forced to face other Middleweight prospects and contenders on their home turf. That resulted in a few questionable decisions that temporarily curtailed his climb to the championship. Three months later, he traveled to Seattle and was robbed for the first time; a controversial draw against Seales. Then in early 1976, he lost two very razor thin decisions in Philadelphia against Philly fighters Bobby Watts and Willie Monroe. Those losses forced Hagler to go back to square one. He never looked back.
After his second loss in early 1976, Hagler went on a crusade, fighting every top Middleweight contender. He knocked out Monroe in two rematches and defeated two of the most popular Philly Middleweights of all time; Bennie Briscoe and Cyclone Hart. He destroyed Roy Jones Jr.’s father, Roy, Sr. in three rounds. By the Winter of 1977, Hagler was the number one contender for the Middleweight title. It would take him two more years to finally get his overdue shot at the title.
At the age of 25 and already one of the five greatest active fighters in boxing, Hagler received his first title opportunity on November 30, 1979 against Brooklyn brawler Vito Antoufermo. Antoufermo was a brawler who bled if he sneezed. He was tailor-made for Hagler. Hagler was a boxer-puncher who adapted to your style. If you were a mover, he attacked. If you were a slugger or brawler, he’d move and use his outstanding right jab and left cross to dominate you from the outside. For the first eight rounds, Hagler put on a boxing clinic, bloodying Antoufermo from the outside and landing at will. Unbeknownst to everyone that night, Hagler abandoned boxing from the outside. For the remainder of the 15-round fight, Hagler slugger it out with Antoufermo, allowing Antoufermo to out-land and out-hustle Hagler throughout the final five rounds. Despite this, I felt Hagler had done enough to win the decision, as he easily won the first eight rounds. Unfortunately, Hagler was robbed again, as the fight was declared a draw and Antoufermo escaped with his title. Instead of giving Hagler an immediate rematch, a few months later, Antoufermo was robbed himself, losing his title to British contender Alan Minter. Minter bludgeoned Antoufermo in the rematch and then defended against Hagler in London. Once again, Hagler had to travel to his opponent’s backyard. This time me, he wouldn’t be denied.
On September 27, 1980, Hagler traveled to London to fight Minter for the Middleweight title. Minter was a fellow southpaw. It was rare back then that two southpaws would face each other in a world title fight. The crowd was vociferous that night, but it didn’t affect Hagler at all. He out-jabbed and out-punched Minter in the first two rounds, bloodying Minter’s nose and left eye. In the third, Hagler battered Minter with several combinations, and Minter was now bleeding profusely from both eyes. The referee wisely stopped the fight, and the British fans rioted, throwing several bottles of beer towards Hagler. The Petronelli brothers surrounded Hagler so he wouldn’t get hit by any of the debris. It was a spectacular beginning to what would be a spectacular reign as Middleweight Champion of the world.
Unable to secure a mega fight with Sugar Ray Leonard due to Leonard’s premature retirement, Hagler bided his time, easily defending his title seven times over the next three years until he finally got a mega-fight on November 10, 1983 against the legendary Roberto Duran. In his first seven title defenses, Hagler didn’t lose a single round as he out-boxed the brawlers and out-slugged the boxers. Against Duran, he gave him too much respect and fought one of his most passive fights of his career. Despite his safety first game plan, I thought Hagler was comfortably ahead going into the final three rounds. However, Hagler was behind by one point on two of the three scorecards going into the 14th round. Hagler fought the 14th and 15th round like his life was on the line, battering Duran with several combinations to pull out a much-closer-than-it-should’ve-been unanimous decision. In his next mega-fight, Hagler made sure such an outcome would not be left up to someone other than himself.
After two more successful defenses, Hagler signed to fight Thomas Hearns on April 15, 1985, in a fight that both men were hungry for. These were the two best fighters in the world at the time fighting each other. Readers of my column and listeners of my podcast know the admiration I have for Hearns. He was the first fighter I idolized and that I followed from the beginning of his career. Hagler had his most difficulty against tall fighters that could box (Monroe and Watts). My father and I felt that if Hearns could stay outside and control Hagler with his jab, he would either win a decision or stop Hagler on cuts, as Hagler became susceptible to cuts over both eyes as he got older. What we didn’t factor in was Hagler’s intense hunger and desire. While training for each and every title defense, Hagler would train inside a prison, isolated from society. He was going to make this fight a war. He knew he had to knock out Hearns and not allow Hearns to stay outside and box. The very first round was the greatest first round in boxing. Hearns landed a spectacular right cross seconds into the fight, staggering Hagler momentarily. Unfortunately, that same right cross he landed subsequently resulted in a broken right hand. At the end of the tumultuous opening stanza, Hearns told his legendary trainer Emanuel Steward that his right hand was broken. Steward implored Hearns to box. No man alive could beat Hagler with one hand. Hagler, a bloody mess, put Hearns to sleep in the third round.
There was only one man left to fight; Sugar Ray Leonard.
After defeating Ugandan slugger John Mugabi the following year, Hagler was finally able to lure Leonard out of retirement. On April 6, 1987, the biggest Middleweight title fight in the history of boxing took place. There has never been a Middleweight title before or after as big. Hagler made a few major mistakes that in hindsight cost him. He allowed the fight to be scheduled for 12 rounds when 15 rounds would have suited him, as Leonard had been inactive for the past three years. The additional three rounds would’ve been a huge advantage for Hagler. Then the night of the fight, Hagler made two huge mistakes in strategy. He tried to out-box the dancing Leonard and fought from an orthodox stance for the first four rounds, essentially giving them away. Beginning with the fifth round, Hagler reverted back to southpaw and an aggressive style, dominating the rest of the fight. He staggered Leonard several times down the stretch and after 12 rounds, the fight was up for grabs. I had the fight dead even at 114-114. Leonard won via split decision and Hagler was angry. I always felt Hagler was to blame for this loss. Had he fought his usual southpaw style, I feel he would’ve either knocked out or handily defeated Leonard by decision. Also, had the fight been scheduled for 15 rounds, Leonard would’ve wilted under Hagler’s constant pressure.
Hagler was so disgusted by the loss to Leonard that he never fought again, making him one of the few legendary fighters in the history of the sport who never attempted a comeback, ala his fellow Brockton native Marciano. Hagler retired with a record of 62 wins, three losses and two draws. A case could be made that he was never decisively defeated in any of his 67 fights. He successfully defended the Middleweight title 12 times over a six-and-a-half year period. He ducked no one, and not only is he the greatest southpaw in boxing history, but he is also the second greatest Middleweight of all-time.
(You can listen to my podcast on Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s greatest performance.)